I was interested to find the word, “deficit scolds” in Paul Krugman’s article titled “Hawks and Hypocrites” in New York Times (November 11). It appears in the following sentence:

Back in 2010, self-styled deficit hawks — better described as deficit scolds — took over much of our political discourse. At a time of mass unemployment and record-low borrowing costs, a time when economic theory said we needed more, not less, deficit spending, the scolds convinced most of our political class that deficits rather than jobs should be our top economic priority. It’s not just the fact that the deficit scolds have been wrong about everything so far.-- The deficit-scold movement was never really about the deficit. Instead, it was about using deficit fears to shred the social safety net.”

Oxford online English Dictionary defines “scold” as “noun, archaic or U.S. meaning a woman who nags or grumble constantly.

Cambridge online dictionary doesn’t show the usage of “scold” as a noun.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “scold” as a noun meaning 1. One who scolds habitually and persistently. 2. A woman who disturb the public peace by noisy and quarrelsome behavior.

From Merriam-Webster I interpret “deficit-scolds” are those who are critical of the government’s financial policy and growing deficit.

I wonder how new and how popular this word is in the U.S.

Are there “X-scolds” formula words that run current, say “Communism scolds” “Abortion scolds,” “Gay-marriage scolds,” “SN and NC-17 movies scolds,” other than “deficit scolds”?

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    +1, great question. I would like to say, Yoichi-san, that I always enjoy your questions. They are thoroughly researched and well-reasoned, and they draw on impeccable sources. I appreciate the eagerness with which you assay the challenges of our English language. – Mark Beadles Nov 13 '12 at 2:23
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    The word is not at all new in the US. Nathaniel Hawthorne would have used it. Also, today, it is mostly written, not spoken. The beauty of this type of word in English is that you can create your own. No one bothered to inform you of that...it's the type of word that comes straight down to us from the likes of the Bard. – Lambie Sep 7 '18 at 13:03

This was the original meaning of the noun scold, and — rather quite oddly — seems to be related to skald, an kind of mistrel-poet of the Norse. The OED has this curious note about its etymology:

Etymology: App. a. ONor. skáld neut. (see skald), originally meaning a poet; the sense-development postulated is strange, but the probability of a sense ‘lampooner’ as an intermediate stage seems to be indicated by the fact that the derivative skáldskapr, lit. ‘skaldship’, poetry, has in the Icel. law-books the specific sense of libel in verse.

Dating from Middle English, scold used as a noun was nearly obsolete before suddenly exploding upon the zeitgeist again. The OED has as its first definition:

In early use, a person (esp. a woman) of ribald speech; later, a woman (rarely a man) addicted to abusive language.

It includes these citations:

  • 1817 Coleridge Biog. Lit. xxiii. (1907) II. 206 ― The Prior was one of the many instances of a youthful sinner metamorphosed into an old scold.
  • 1842 Mrs. Gore Fascination 15 ― ‘If you only manage to drink the wine I send to fetch for you,’ said the scold of a wife, ‘you won’t be much the worse for it.’
  • 1863 P. Barry Dockyard Econ. 67 ― Too often he is under the dominion of a forbidding scold, who, in addition to her other bad qualities, is slovenly and unthrifty.

They also define a common scold as “a woman who disturbs the peace of the neighbourhood by her constant scolding.” It is an old term. When Shakespeare used in in The Taming of the Shrew, saying

I know she is an irkesome brawling scold.

It had already been around for four hundred years. It didn’t see much currency, though, until very recently. Using scold as a noun like this has seen a “recent” explosive increase in popularity. It’s suddenly a popular word in America. I first noticed this about a year ago or so, although probably I was late to that table. I do think it is but newly popular here.

The answer to your question is that yes, you may use it in the ways you asked about.


I think it's important to recognize the traditionally female connotation of the term scold, which evidently owes much of its force to developments in British common law. In a lengthy article titled "Legal Condition of Woman" in The North American Review (April 1828), the unnamed reviewer has this to say about "scolds":

Our ungallant fathers of the common law provided a peculiar punishment for common scolds, but carefully confined the crime and the punishment to scolds of the female sex. Scolds are defined in the books to be 'troublesome and angry women, who, by their brawling and wrangling amongst their neighbors, break the public peace, increase discord, and become a public nuisance to the neighborhood.' Our ancestors thought, perhaps, that men being indictable as common barrators or movers of suits and quarrels, and there being no precedent of such an indictment having fallen upon a woman, although Hawkins thinks there is no good cause why it should not lie, therefore it was not amiss for the latter to be exclusively liable to punishment for scolding. The barrator is only subject to fine or imprisonment; but the scold was indictable as a common nuisance, and if convicted was sentenced to be placed on a certain engine of correction called a castigatory, trebucket, or cuckingstool, and after being exposed thereon to be plunged in the water. [Abbreviated legal citations omitted.]

Thus, one aspect of calling someone a "scold," regardless of the companion word in the compound ("deficit scold," "grammar scold," etc.), is to suggest that the person is behaving in a way characteristic of a stereotypically fault-finding woman. No doubt many people today do not intend that connation—I'm sure that Paul Krugman would deny that he intends any such thing—but it's there for the taking.

  • Indeedy, it is from the distaff side. In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio has these words: I know she is an irksome brawling scold; If that be all, masters, I hear no harm. – Lambie Sep 7 '18 at 12:56

The following is just a supplement to the OP's own research and the excellent answers already provided.

What is at issue is pre-head complementation vs. pre-head modification

Technically speaking, the OP is asking whether in a construction of the type X scold, X can function as a complement of the head noun scold, as opposed to acting as a mere modifier of it.

To explain that, here are two cases where X is not a pre-head complement, but just a pre-head modifier:

[a] this might be Louise Hay or any of the other smiling New Age scolds who
     tell their unhappy followers that they chose their AIDS or abusive parents
[b] Germany's balancing act between euro scold and bailout enabler (source);

We should contrast these with

[1] Mike is a deficit scold.

First of all, there is a semantic difference.

In [a], being New Age is indirectly predicated of Louise Hay (and others); the sentence implies that Louise Hay is a New Age 'person'. Similarly, in [b], euro is indirectly predicated of Germany; the sentence implies that Germany is a 'euro' entity, i.e. a member of the Eurozone.

In contrast, in [1], deficit is not predicated of Mike. Rather, deficit is wholly 'subordinate' to scold; Mike is related to defict only through scold.

The general technical statement is that complements express semantic arguments of the head noun (CGEL, p. 441). In all three cases [a], [b], and [1], the head noun is scold (or scolds). But only in [1] does the nominal before scold express a semantic property of scold, namely, the subject concerning which the scolding occurs. In [1], the scolding occurs in the area of deficits. But in [a], it is not the case that the scolding occurs in the area of New Age. Neither the New Age part in [a] nor the euro part in [b] is especially connected to being a scold.

Another way to see the difference between [a] and [b] on one hand, and [1] on the other, is to note that [1] has a close paraphrase involving post-head complements with a forced choice of preposition; the part about 'forced choice' is called licensing and is 'the most basic criterion for complement status of post-head dependents' (CGEL, p. 440). In particular, we can paraphrase [1] as

[1'] Mike is a scold of deficits.

Here we have little choice as to which preposition to use. Note that there are no corresponding paraphrases of either [a] or [b].

Further examples of nominals that can serve as pre-head complements of scold

The Oxford Dictionary, already referenced by the OP, also gives the following example of usage:

[2] it may not be as bad as some lifestyle scolds make it out to be (original source here)

The context (see the link) makes it clear that we are talking about scolds of (certain kinds of) lifestyle; so indeed here lifestyle functions as a pre-head complement of scolds.

Here are some other examples:

[3] the support of Obama-era nutrition scolds (source);
     don't be a nutrition scold on Halloween (source);
[4] But today's education scolds have no such excuse. (source);
[5] immigration scolds seem to be excessively afraid (source);
[6] an iPhone and Android app that functions as a mobile spending scold (source);

All of these are instances of scold(s) having a pre-head complement. A nutrition scold is a scold of certain nutrition practices; an education scold is a scold of certain kinds of educational practices (or of the state of education); and so on.

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